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The Story of the Life of MacKay of Uganda
Chapter XXI - The Iron Horse

“When the Indian trail gets widened, graded, and bridged to a
good road, there is a benefactor, there is a missionary, a pacificator
a wealth-bringer, a maker of markets, a vent for industry.”


MACKAY believed that a railway from the coast to the lake would prove a mighty power in opening up the great interior, as it would benefit the natives, in a just way, at every step, and enable missions to be worked at an enormous reduction of life and expenditure.

His views about a railway, of very light construction, were quite assented to by Stanley, who promised to do all in his power to persuade the late Sir William Mackinnon, of the “Imperial British East African Company,” of the necessity of it. This railway is now advanced, and will do much to develop not only missionary enterprise but legitimate trade. The fame of honest Christian traders will soon spread far and wide among the natives, and white men will rapidly gain a footing firm and sure and friendly, to the exclusion of dishonest Mohammedan dealers.

By the formation of a railway the slave trade will cease, and merchants will be able to forward their ivory and native produce very quickly to the coast, and at a far cheaper rate than by the old barbarous system of porterage. Arabs have never learned, and probably never will learn, to adopt even wheeled vehicles; hence it will be an easy matter to outwit them, by selling cloth and other European goods, in the far interior, at a price far below what they can afford to do it for.

A regular mail service, which the railway will inaugurate, will be an indescribable boon to the isolated missionaries. The climate, and the everlasting sameness in food, help to bring on anaemia, and its many evil consequences. Two meals a day - plantains and boiled goat’s flesh, frequently without the goat’s flesh - tend to monotony and loss of appetite. At such times a fresh mail, bringing good news of loved ones at home, a newspaper, or a new book, acts like a tonic; hope returns, and the Lord’s work is carried on with renewed vigour.

The merchants, too, will be kept constantly aware of the market value of ivory, etc., and thereby save themselves from loss.

Mackay says: “Unquestionably it is now high time to introduce a radical change in the present method of trying to penetrate into the interior of this continent. Probably the English public is little aware of the appalling number of failures which have occurred from the rough-and-ready system of employing human beings as beasts of burden, or of the efforts already made to introduce a more rational means of transport. A brief enumeration of some of the most lamentable instances of failure in East African expeditions may serve to deter others from continuing the old method, while a knowledge of experiments already tried to use animal power in the same region, may help to prevent useless waste of money in making fresh trials of the same kind.”

“It is now fully a dozen years since, on my first journey into the interior from the Zanzibar coast, I pointed out that the difficulty of African travel arose, not from the physical nature of the country, nor from the character of the natives, but from the barbarous and inhuman method of employing porters. In Africa a hill is no more to climb than one in England, nor are the forests harder to penetrate than is the. Schwartzwald. Along the well-watered banks of the Upper Congo dense ‘black forests’ undoubtedly exist, and would prove a sore hindrance to land transit, but these regions are, on the other hand, accessible by water. Generally, however, the vast area of East Africa, from Nyassa to the Nyanza, presents one unbroken piece of open jungle, sparsely wooded with dwarf trees and bushes, presenting little difficulty except in the wet season, to the passage of pack animals or vehicles. The natives everywhere carry on their own shoulders any articles they wish to transport from place to place; the Arabs, ignorant of wheels, have only too readily adopted the same method; but that can be no excuse for Europeans casting aside all the resources of civilisation at the coast, and adopting native or Arab barbarity the moment they enter the interior. Explorers penetrating the region of the unknown, and eager only to cover long distances, may be excused for declining to hamper themselves with heavy wagons, or animals the life of which they are not sure of. Now the case is entirely changed. The physical features of the whole continent are to-day pretty well known. Only limited portions require mapping in detail. Travellers now demand means of transporting goods, in large quantities, for consumption at stations in the far interior. This renders quite inexcusable the continued adoption of a method ever fraught with enormous inconveniences to even the lightly-equipped explorer.”

“Early in the year 1876 the two great missionary bodies, the Church Missionary Society and the London Missionary Society, undertook the task of planting stations in the centre of the continent; the former on the Victoria Lake, the latter on the Tanganyika. The directors of both Societies, fully conscious of the cruelty attending the use of porters, at once resolved to try bullock-wagons, which are widely used in South Africa. But, as in most undertakings by white men in Africa, the desire for haste overcame other considerations. The Church Missionary Society sent up their first parties with the goods on men’s shoulders. Only two hundred miles from the coast all the porters mutinied and left, but were subsequently persuaded to return; four hundred miles farther on they again threw down their loads and departed finally. The leader, Lieut. Shergold Smith, after spending months collecting fresh porters, was able to make another start, but only with worse result. ‘The porters deserted by fifties daily,’ he wrote, ‘and after a stormy passage, our expedition arrived at the lake a perfect wreck.’ Shortly afterwards, a caravan of supplies was sent up to the relief of the men, all but starving at Kagei, under an Englishman of many years’ experience with natives; but he too was deserted by all his carriers about half-way to the lake. Year after year renewed efforts were made to forward men and supplies to the Nyanza, generally with similar results. One leader of a Church Missionary Society caravan, an Englishman named Penrose, was attacked by robbers in the jungle; his two hundred porters threw down their loads and fled, leaving their leader to be butchered and all the property to be destroyed.”

“The London Missionary Society suffered similar losses through the mutiny and desertion of their porters, although subsequently some of their caravans, as also some of the Church Missionary Society, were fortunate in reaching their destination, but in no case that I am aware of without serious losses.”

“The case of the Abbe De Baize was particularly painful. Subsidised by the French Government, he started from Zanzibar with about a thousand followers, intending to cross Africa; but by the time he reached Ujiji, his great company had melted away, and there the Abbe died of disappointment. Little better success attended the numerous expeditions of the African International Association, mostly led by Belgian officers. Their losses, by mutiny and desertion, were even greater than those experienced by the other Europeans. I need not detail more instances. The story of the trials of the Romish missionaries, of travellers like Reichard and Giraud, and others, reveals only the same tale of disaster and failure - all owing to the barbarous employment of a mob of more or less savage blacks as burden-bearers.”

“Meantime, the missionary societies were active with experiments in a different direction. One agent of the Church Missionary Society was appointed, early in 1877, to clear a track through the bush as far as Mpwapwa, with only a force of fifty axes; this was accomplished without difficulty. The line followed was the valley of the Wami river, and its tributary the Mkondokwa. The length cut was two hundred and thirty miles, and the time occupied only three months. The London Missionary Society soon afterwards landed at Sadani about a dozen strong English wagons, and teams of draught oxen and skilled bullock-drivers from Natal. Scores and scores of oxen were purchased on the spot and trained to trek. A Swiss trader - Philip Brayon - followed with heavy teams and tire-wheeled vehicles. The Church Missionary Society brought teak carts from Bombay, and got others made in Zanzibar. Oxen were purchased and trained, and what was more difficult still, Zanzibaris were trained to manage the teams. For a while all worked well. The caravans of wheeled vehicles followed each other up country in quick succession. But before one hundred miles of way were covered, the whole four hundred oxen, bought at $20 per head, and broken in with much labour, succumbed to the bite of the tsetse fly, and the wagons had to be abandoned. Thus terminated for the time all experiments to introduce the use of oxen in place of human porters. Yet, all the way along, in most of the villages, large herds of cattle are to be found. It is the reach of jungle between the native clearings that is full of the fatal fly.”

“The next effort to use animal power was made by his Majesty the King of the Belgians. His expedition, under the leadership of Captains Carter and Cadenhead, left Dar es Salaam for Tanganyika with three fine Indian elephants. The baggage of the party was far in excess of what the elephants could carry, and porters were sought in addition. As these were not speedily forthcoming, the Englishmen, with characteristic impatience of delay, piled on the elephants double their customary load. As was to be expected, the animals broke down, and ultimately all died. The white men themselves were subsequently killed in a native war, and no further trials were made with Indian elephants; although I feel safe in saying that, had the animals got justice, the experiment with them would have proved a clear success.”

Mules have been tried, by both the French and English missions; but, for some reason or other, they, as well as native donkeys, have always died on the road. The Church Missionary Society has also tried to use camels in the coast region, but the result was failure - probably owing to the dampness of the climate. It will be remembered that Livingstone (ever harassed by the ‘intrigues of deserters’) took with him, on his last journey inland, camels, buffaloes, mules and donkeys, almost all of which died, unmistakably of tsetse bite, although their end was hastened by overloading, bad treatment, and bad weather.”

“The question will readily be asked, ‘Is there no specific against the tsetse?’ The natives have preventives of their own, but to what extent they succeed I cannot say. Certain it is that cattle are constantly driven from village to village with apparent impunity, although realms of the ‘fly’ lie between, while every year herds of cattle are taken by the Wanyamwesi to the coast: but these are purchased there chiefly for slaughter. I am not aware that any survive the journey more than a few months. As to remedies or preventives, Livingstone tells of lion’s fat being rubbed on the root of the tail of the cattle, while some have made the amusing suggestion of daubing the horses’ nostrils with nitrate of silver, not knowing that it is not the nostrils only, but the whole body of the animal which is bitten!”

“Our party tried petroleum, which seemed to be effective, for a time at least. Failure in the supply of that article prevented its continued application; and as all our oxen subsequently died, I cannot say how far the oil was of real service at all.”

“Almost any animal will draw twice as great a load as it will carry; hence vehicles should be used wherever possible. Oxen, mules, camels and donkeys will, I fear, never succeed, except about a station, or in particularly favourable and limited regions. Camels might be used for crossing the desert between Mombasa and Kilimanjaro, or on the sandy plains of Ugogo, but certainly not in damp regions. Donkeys might do well in the Masai country, especially if procured there, and not imported from a district where they have been accustomed to different conditions. There seems also to be no reason why African buffaloes should not be proof against the tsetse. The failure of the three imported by Livingstone affords no proof to the contrary. The African jungles are swarming with buffaloes, and skill and patience seem alone to be needed to turn these animals to the service of man. But on all soils and in all seasons elephants will, I believe, prove the most reliable for either burden or draught. If brought from India their cost will be considerable, but that will be to some extent compensated for by their marvellous longevity. They are said not to breed in confinement, yet one of the three elephants of Captain Carter’s Expedition bore a young one in Unyamwesi. Skilful hands will know how to use their Indian elephants to decoy and tame those of Africa itself. General Gordon foresaw the value of the African elephant, if trained, and actually had four Indian ones taken up to the Equatorial province, with a view to having others. What became of these when the Soudan was abandoned to barbarism, I do not know. Perhaps the best way to check the rapid extinction of the elephant in Africa, and at the same time to lessen the ivory trade, which is the root of all the ills of this Dark Continent, will be to encourage the natives to capture the animals alive. These will fetch an enormously greater price than the bare tusks, and I have generally found the African ready to turn to that by which he will get most money. It seems ridiculous to go on extirpating such useful animals merely for their teeth.”

"But elephant, buffalo, or whatever animal power is found most suitable, the use of them can never be regarded as more than auxiliary to the only power which will ever effectually bring the light of civilisation into the heart of Africa - the iron horse. Let the British and German East African Companies pursue a daring and persistent policy, as the Russians are doing in Central Asia, and carry a skeleton line of rail to the Nyanza and Tanganyika, respectively. A dash to Wadelai by either party will never amount to much. Treaties made by a flying brigade are a farce; but a policy of ‘governing as they go,’ and establishing cheap and fairly rapid communication with their remotest stations, will well repay any initial outlay. No finely measured gradients nor even much solidity will be needed in the first instance. The roughest conceivable track, with light pit rails, and only temporary bridges, would prove an inestimable boon to Central Africa, and develop the resources of this continent far beyond the most sanguine expectations of its well-wishers.”

“C.M.S. Missionary.”

“January 1889.”



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